The Silence of the Girlsby Published 04 Sep 2018
|The Silence of the Girls.pdf|
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war's outcome. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis's people but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
"The Silence of the Girls" Reviews
"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.
We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer's The Iliad that brings in the stories of the women and girls who were, essentially, collateral damage in the Trojan War.
Briseis is the narrator. When Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks, she becomes a war prize for Achilles but quickly gets caught up in a dispute between him and Agamemnon. We experience life in the Greek's camp through her eyes and see all the injustices that take place. Barker's frank, gritty portrayal of a place swamped in stinking rats, alcohol and male ego is especially good in the first half of the book.
Whether intentional or not, the title calls to mind Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs and her story about helplessly sitting by while the lambs went to the slaughter. It's an interesting parallel. Briseis recounts the atrocities of war and how they affect women, unable to help the women around her as they are abused, raped and traded like chattel. It's a dark story, to be sure, and I found it very emotional and effective for just less than half of the book.
She was like a windflower trembling on its slender stem, so fragile you feel it can’t possibly survive the blasts that shake it, though it survives them all.
I wanted to give it a higher rating, but I can't shake the impression that The Silence of the Girls offers a fascinating premise and then kinda doesn't know what to do with it. The strong start becomes something tedious and repetitive once we settle into camp life, and especially so when the author introduces Achilles' perspective in the second half. It's disappointing when books are strong in concept but quickly wither out in execution.
I'm probably underselling it, though. 3 stars is not really a negative rating and there's some excellent writing here. Achilles is a complex character, portrayed both through his own perspective and through Briseis's. His maternal abandonment issues, plus his relationship with Patroclus, are told well. It is strange perhaps that in a book called The Silence of the Girls, Achilles is still the most interesting and multilayered character. Or maybe that's the point- who knows?
Barker's writing is mostly smart and witty, powered both by metaphor and some of Briseis's sardonic asides, but there are a few jarring anachronisms. Her use of British slang like "knockers" for breasts feels weird and out of place no matter how much the author assures us it was intentional.
It's really difficult to talk about this retelling of Greek mythology without bringing in Madeline Miller as a comparison. Well, I liked this one better than Miller's The Song of Achilles but less than her Circe. As far as books that give voices to the lesser-known women of ancient myths go, Circe still comes out on top for me.
CW: Rape (on-page); war; graphic violence; one incidence of self-harm.
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A book about Troy, Briseis, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Patroclus and the rest of the gang. TODAY WAS A GOOD DAY.
Briseis and Achilles. I don't deserve this honor but I'll take it. I'm never getting off this cruise ship.
Sorry, just channeling my inner 12-year-old.
I was almost cured from my daily obsession and that book happened. This is all your fault, Val.
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him “the butcher.”
Swift-footed Achilles. Now there’s an interesting one. More than anything else, more than brilliance, more than greatness, his speed defined him. There’s a story that he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”
Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.
Years of reading smutty Briseis/Achilles fanfiction has not prepared me for Pat Barker's dark poetry. Let me make one thing clear. This is not a romance novel. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that Greek mythology is beautifully tragic. This tale is no different. The author has managed to capture the true essence of Greek mythology. I appreciate her being straightforward and truthful in what happened and not romanticizing Achilles like many people do.
You surely know the story, but let's quickly recap the plot:
Agamemnon: I’m just being a greedy little bitch and want all the money, fame and happiness in the world for myself. I'm bored. We should totally attack Troy now.
Priam: I’d rather be a lover than a fighter because all my life i’ve been fighting 🎵
Hector: Honor, duty, patriotism, blah blah.
Odysseus: I'm smart.
Patroclus: I'd die for you Achilles. Period.
Achilles: I'm tryna be emo just let me.
Briseis: I will outlive you all.
That's exactly the way it is. That's precisely what happened, ok?
How is it even possible to underestimate Briseis? A woman of such great courage and strength.
(The Return Of Briseis To Achilles by Sir Peter Paul Rubens)
She endured so much over those years, and yet she kept fighting, against all odds. What exactly was her relationship with Achilles? I believe they both cared for each other even though they couldn’t admit it to themselves. Unfortunately, Briseis is often being overlooked, sometimes even dismissed as unimportant. I need to remind myself (and others) of this passage from The Iliad more often.
But why must the Argives make war on the Trojans? why hath Atreides gathered his host and led them hither? is it not for lovely-haired Helen’s sake? Do then the sons of Atreus alone of mortal men love their wives? surely whatsoever man is good and sound of mind loveth his own and cherisheth her, even as I too loved mine with all my heart, though but the captive of my spear.
Is The Silence of the Girls romantic? No. Neither was the Iliad. To really convey the disgusting horror of war, you have to show it. There are no real villains or heroes. We do what we must.
He says good night and goes back to his living quarters, where he finds Briseis sitting up in bed waiting for him. For a moment, he’s tempted to give in and join her, but his mood’s changed now, darkening as the shadows fall.
If you're hopelessly obsessed with Greek mythology and you just want a normal life clap your hands. #craziesunite
I thought: Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.
(La colère d'Achille pour la perte de Briseis by Domenico Cunego)
Trigger warnings: [spoilers removed]
Ruelle - Deep End
MIIA – Dynasty
Meggie's Theme - Henry Mancini
X-Ray Dog - The Vision
X Ray Dog - Requiem Overture
Audiomachine - An Unfinished Life
Audiomachine – The Truth
Jamin Winans - Ink Soundtrack (John's Walk )
James Horner - Briseis And Achilles – Troy
Close Your Eyes - Buffy/Angel Theme
Lisa Gerrard & Denez Prigent - Gortoz A Ran
Mark Petrie – Surpass
Zack Hemsey – See What I've Become
Message To Bears – You Are a Memory
Royal Briseis is presented to Achilles as a prize for sacking and destroying Lyrnessus a neighboring city of Troy. So this is a re-telling of the final few weeks of The Iliad’s Trojan War from the perspective of a “bed-slave”. While Briseis has it better than the abject slavery of many other female captives her life is, in its own way, just as brutal. The prose of Part One is bewitching but it falls apart for a few chapters within Part Two where it veers off into clichés as well as attempts at conveying conversation with a sense of realism. You’ll recognize this sort of thing: “ We-ell, ye-es, no-o, list-en” which is annoying, distracting and unnecessary. We get back on track afterwards. The characters are gratifyingly complicated, distressed and conflicted. After all, isn’t this why these classic legends endure?
Pat Barker continues on the themes of war, providing a brutally visceral portrait in this telling of The Iliad, adding the voices of the women missing from the original. When her family is wiped out by the forces of Agamemnon, Briseis becomes the premier warrior, Achilles, trophy prize. Barker provides complex and nuanced characterisation, of the women as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, whilst giving us an Achilles that is less a hero, more a troubled man with his own demons. We get the clash of male egos when Agamemnon demands Briseis for himself after losing his woman. A bitter Achilles agrees but refuses point blank to fight for him any more. As we are immersed in the daily horrors of war, Achilles's pain and despair overflows after a personal tragedy but still has him able to feel compassion towards the grief of Priam. The Silence of the Girls is a stellar novel, beautifully written, where the stories of the women are told, made authentic with their opinions and views, amidst the never ending cost of war they are forced to endure. Highly recommended!
It's so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that's partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker's novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.
The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author's unique slant on the narrative and feel that they're contributing something new to the story, otherwise what's the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer's musings on fate and free will and grief and glory - in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless - are all echoed in Briseis' narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she's narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she's narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.
I also felt these were some of the best depictions I've ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles' brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus' ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliad into Barker's story, in a way that I haven't seen achieved by any other retelling I've read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.
My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters' motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into 'telling rather than showing' territory, so I really didn't mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles's actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren't reading Achilles's thoughts, but rather, Briseis' interpretation of Achilles's thoughts.... but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it's clear that we're supposed to be in Achilles' head, but rather unclear why we've switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.
But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It's subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It's definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls - though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don't think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker's novel - it's a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.
Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.